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Ryan Hunter-Reay quiets his critics

4/28/2014 - IndyCar

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- Ryan Hunter-Reay spent the two weeks since the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach getting verbally beaten up by his fellow Verizon IndyCar Series drivers.

On Sunday at Barber Motorsports Park, Hunter-Reay fought back on the track. He did it cleanly and without incident, resulting in his second consecutive victory in the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama. He led his teammate Marco Andretti in an Andretti Autosport 1-2, with defending IndyCar Series champion Scott Dixon third.

The race was delayed by rain for more than 2½ hours, prompting Hunter-Reay to claim that the early, wet conditions were "like being on an ice skating rink in sneakers." The wet track caught up with pole winner Will Power, who pulled out a five-second advantage over the first 15 laps before he ran off the track in Turn 5 and lost the lead to Hunter-Reay.

"He's human; he's beatable," quipped Andretti.

Once he was out front, Hunter-Reay's only concern was whether the timed race format (one hour and 40 minutes, instead of the scheduled 90 laps) would allow another driver to run a radical pit stop strategy and steal the win. Instead, RHR was in command all afternoon up to the point when the race ended under yellow after Mikhail Aleshin's crash.

"That was such a blast today," Hunter-Reay exclaimed after his 12th career Indy car race win. "It's a bummer we ended under yellow, because man, we were walking it. What a car to drive a car like that, in conditions like that.

"The race started to drag on a little bit there at the end when we were out there by ourselves, but it was tough for everybody today," he added. "Just so awesome to see this car back in Victory Lane. Last weekend should have been a great result, but we got it this weekend."

Up to the start of the race, people were still talking about the crash Hunter-Reay triggered at Long Beach when he attempted an ill-advised pass on Josef Newgarden. The incident took out Newgarden and several other drivers, including Hunter-Reay's Andretti Autosport teammate James Hinchcliffe, all of whom verbally blasted the 2012 IndyCar Series champion.

Hunter-Reay was mostly unrepentant about the crash, which created additional tension within the paddock and even within his own team. But at Barber, he let his performance on the track do the talking.

"We're all racers -- that's the thing," Hunter-Reay said. "I've never been the guy that's going to sit back and cruise home for a second place. I'll go for it. But it's racing. It's not the first time, and it won't be the last.

"I spoke to Josef about it. We're all good on it," RHR added. "Everybody is good on it. I'm the car making the pass, so it's down to me in the end. I spoke to the stewards, and they viewed it as a racing incident."

For team owner Michael Andretti, a victory was the best way to put the controversy of Long Beach behind his team.

"It feels good after the last one, for sure," Andretti said. "I'm proud of Ryan and Marco. They both drove a hell of a race.

"We were lucky Will made that mistake, and that gave us the track position, which is always important here. Just the way everything fell, with the rain and the way it dried out, it just came to us. It was a good day."

While the Andretti team placed three cars in the top seven on race day at Barber, Team Penske pretty much crapped out after qualifying all three of its cars in the top eight.

Power led early but eventually faded to fifth, Helio Castroneves garnered a penalty for pulling into the wrong pit and finished 19th, and Juan Pablo Montoya looked racy but spun off and finished 21st.

"I just locked up," Power said of his off-course excursion. "Once you lock up a wheel, you just go straight. I missed that wall by an inch, I reckon.

"We just didn't have the pace in the dry," he added. "Maybe we were just a little heavy on downforce, but in the half-dry, half-wet conditions, we just kind of struggled."

That left it to Marco Andretti to claim best of the rest honors at a track where he has frequently shone.

"The Snapple car didn't have much for the DHL car, so we definitely need to hit the drawing board and see how he kicked my butt today," Andretti said. "I was driving blind today, without a radio, but I kept my head down. A heck of a team effort."

Dixon broke his streak of four consecutive second-place finishes at Barber, but he went in the opposite direction that he had hoped with a third-place run.

"It was one of those races where you had to make sure you kept it clean and stay out of trouble," said Dixon. "We got as much as we could out of it, but we just kind of drove the front tires off it."

Power maintains the IndyCar Series championship lead, but his edge has been cut to 18 points over Hunter-Reay. Simon Pagenaud, who finished fourth at Barber, is third in the standings, 33 points back, while Dixon is another five points in arrears in fourth.

"It feels great to bounce back like this," Hunter-Reay said. "But we know that it's still very early in a long season."